Theories of Deviance: Conflict Theory

Why are some people's behaviors more apt to be negatively labeled by the criminal justice system? Labeling theorists point to the role of moral entrepreneurs or social movements, but what about the forces that underlie a particular moral crusade? Why, for example, would American society want to criminalize the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the 1920s? Why the increased penalties for domestic violence in the 1970s, or the War on Drugs in the 1980s? For the conflict theorists, the answer has to do with the balance of power and privilege in society. Everything from material goods to quality education to religious freedom is in short supply, and therefore the typical relationship among groups in society is competition and conflict. Conflict theorists are typically categorized according to which inequalities they prioritize.

I. Marxist theory. Marx gives priority to economic inequalities. In his view, all societies are marked by the conflict of social classes, sometime overt, sometimes hidden, but always the major source of stability and change in society. Those who control the productive property of any society (land, factories, equipment) use their economic power to dominate other spheres--culture, religion, education, politics, and certainly the criminal justice system. There may be laws that benefit everybody, but mostly "the gneral interest" is a fiction that covers up class interest. "Justice" and "fair play" are public relations for a system that actually protects private property and treats transgressions against the upper classes much more seriously than transgressions against the lower classes.

Steven Spitzer points out that a capitalist economy, by its very nature, creates a surplus population. As businesses compete with one another, the successful capitalist will be the one who is the most technologically innovative. Advanced technology (i.e., automation) allows skilled workers to be replaced by less skilled workers, and ultimately it allows industrial production to be moved to whatever countries have the lowest standard of living and therefore the cheapest labor force. The current stage of the economy, which Marxists like Spitzer term "monopoly capitalism," (meaning the world economy is dominated by a few hundred multi-national corporations) is particularly aggressive in eliminating jobs and/or moving them overseas. The less educated and less skilled are increasingly not needed at all. The capitalist system needs to minimize the threat from this surplus population (in Spitzer's terminoilogy, keep "social junk" from turning into "social dynamite.") The social welfare system may be part of the solution, but since the early 1970s, the ruling class has turned more and more to the criminal justice system as the primary means of control.

How does this theory differ from Merton's anomie theory? The Marxists go beyond the mere fact of blocked opportunity to try to explain why that blockage exists. As they see it, the very nature of the economic system means more and more people will become surplus. If those people can be contained in ghettos, such that they are a threat primarily to other elements in the surplus population, then the capitalist system is not in danger. Organized crime can even be tolerated as long as the upper classes are not threatened, and indeed, part of what would otherwise be surplus population can be employed in running the criminal justice system. But ultimately the growth of the criminal justice system, and its expense, becomes one of the factors precipitating a crisis in capitalism and a transition to socialism.

William Chambliss's treatment of "The Saints and the Roughnecks" also fits here. In this classic study in Seattle suburb in the 1970s, the saints are a group of 8 white upper-middle-class boys on the pre-college track in high school, who engage in incredibly large amounts of truancy, a great dea of drinking and driving, quite a bit of petty theft and vandalism, and a lot of cheating in school, but managed to maintain a good image. If these youths are apprehended, the influence of their parents and the social skills of boys contributes to the interpretation that they are just engaging in youthful highjinks (boys will be boys). The roughnecks are a group of six lower-class boys who engage in lots of fighting (mostly among themselves or with other lower-class boys) and stealing, who are often arrested, and whose image in the community is terrible. In Chambliss's view, the saints behavior had at least as much potential for community harm as the behavior of the roughnecks. The saints' driving was bad when they were sober and atrocious when drunk, and their vandalism included moving street signs to create dangerous situations for motorists and watch the "fun." But the saints never got labeled, and they ultimately all went on to college, got degrees, and pursued respectable careers. Two of the roughnecks went to college on football scholarships and were successful; as adults the other roughnecks continued their juvenile involvement with the police and prisons. Chambliss doesn't claim that their eventual career paths are entirely the result of labeling, but does see it as a factor.

II. Group conflict theory. Where Marx believed that social class is the most basic division in any society, Max Weber saw conflict as having many possible bases--including social class, but also religion, race, ethnicity, and more. Where Marx believed that class inequalities would ultimately be ended by revolution, Weber saw conflict as eternal, although it could take new forms. Group conflict theory derives from Weber's vision. A good example is Joseph Gusfield's book, Symbolic Crusade. Gusfield shows that the social forces behind the Prohibition Amendment were the forces of small-town and rural Protestant America unifying against the encroachment of the alien immigrants, mostly Catholics and Jews. The restrictive immigration laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 1921 and 1924 represent the victory of these same social forces.

When it comes to new laws, or the more aggressive enforcement of old laws, the question for the group conflict theorists is always: Who benefits and who loses? As Chambliss and Seidman put it: "the rule is that discretion at every level... will be so exercised as to bring mainly those who are politically powerless into the purview of the law."

III. Feminist Theory. One inequality that didn't receive much attention even from the conflict theorists is gender. Theorists sometimes apologized for their lack of attention to girls and women, but there was an assumption that the more dramatic and interesting forms of deviance were primarily the purview of the boys and men. Official crime data confirmed their preponderance both as perpetrators and aggressors. Only since the rise of modern feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s has that assumption been systematically tested. The first focus of the feminist theorists was domestic violence and rape. The criminal justice system, by largely ignoring male violence against women in intimate relationships, helped to perpetuate a patriarchy that was at least as basic to American society as class or racial domination.

Meda Chesney-Lind's 1989 article, "Girls' Crime and Woman's Place: Toward a Feminist Model of Female Delinquency," shows another direction that feminist theory has taken. Chesney-Lind tries to show the ways in which the juvenile justice system reinforces the subordination of women in American society. Many of you are probably familiar with the early history of the Juvenile Court in America (see Tony Platt's book, The Childsavers). Chesney-Lind shows that in its early years, girls were particularly apt to be brought before the court based on sexual immorality, and what's more, girls were much more apt than boys to be sent to reformatories and training schools (self-described as places of "rescue and reform"). Chesney-Lind shows that a double-standard has persisted. Girls more than boys are charged with status offenses, and girls more than boys are apt to be referred to the court by their parents. While this is well-known, what is less well-known is the role of physical and sexual abuse in the breakdown of relations between many of these girls and their parents. In a Wisconsin study, for example, 79% of girls in the juvenile justice system had been subjected to physical abuse that resulted in some form of injury, and 32% had been sexually abused by a parent or someone else close to their family. In a study of adult women in prison, Chesney-Lind found that over 60% had been sexually abused as youngsters. "This situation prompted these women to run away from home (three-quarters had been arrested for status offenses) where once on the streets they began engaging in prostitution and petty property crimes. They also began a life-time problem with drugs." The net result is that "statutes that were orginally placed in law to 'protect' young people have, in the case of girls' delinquency, criminalized their survival strategies."